Kleindeutschland: Little Germany in the Lower East Side

Development of Kleindeutschland or Little Germany

By Dr. Richard Haberstroh

When New Yorkers think about an historically German neighborhood of their city, they typically think of Yorkville, the section of Manhattan centered around East 86th Street, which in the first half of the twentieth century was nicknamed “German Broadway.” Not many people realize that this was not the original German area of the city – an honor that actually belonged to the Lower East Side and the so-called East Village (including “Alphabet City”). The entire area reaching roughly from Division Street in the south to 14th Street in the north, and from the Bowery in the west to Avenue D in the east became a thriving center of German-American life and culture in the mid- to late 19th century – not only for New York City, but also for the country.

In the first decades of post-colonial America, immigration from non-English-speaking countries was extremely limited. This changed in 1816 when a catastrophic famine struck Europe and, combined with other economic factors, prompted thousands of Germans to pack their meager belongings and head toward seaports, especially Le Havre in France and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, en route to what they hoped would be a more prosperous life on the other side of the Atlantic. Over the next 15 years, this small but significant rush of immigration – originally centered in the German southwest – slowly grew into a great wave as poverty and political unrest in Germany continued to grow.

By the 1830s, approximately 60 years before the development of Yorkville as a German enclave, immigration from Germany into the U.S. was rising quickly. Many of the immigrants who came, especially those who landed in New York City, settled down to make their lives on the Lower East Side, which at the time could more appropriately have been called the “Upper East Side,” since it was the northern edge of the developed area of eastern Manhattan Island.

By the 1850s, there were so many German immigrants living there that the area could truly be considered the Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, of New York City. (It also was referred to as Deutschländle by residents and Dutchtown by non-German-speakers.) By 1855, New York City, then consisting only of Manhattan, was the third largest “German” city in the world, after Berlin and Vienna, and by the 1870s it has been estimated that roughly 30 % of the population of New York City was made up of German immigrants and their American-born offspring. The core of that population lived in Kleindeutschland, the German cultural capitol of the United States.

Kleindeutschland was composed roughly of the 10th, 13th, 11th, and 17th Wards; the latter two were the upper wards bounded on the south by Rivington Street, which were developed primarily through the arrival of these German immigrants. Of course, this large area was not purely German throughout, but the Teutonic culture dominated in most parts.

The most densely Germanic area in terms of residents was the area around Tompkins Square Park, especially extending to the north and south. Avenue B, due to its importance as a commercial center, was sometimes referred to as German Broadway – Yorkville wouldn’t usurp the title for another few decades – and Avenue A rivaled it in importance simply as the main artery through the heart of the community. A bit further west, on and in the vicinity of the Bowery, were many of the important German social and financial institutions as well as places of recreation such as beer halls, theatres, and other attractions.

Kleindeutschland, like other immigrant areas of the city, was an urban landscape dominated by tenements providing relatively inexpensive housing to the working classes; in fact, that was one of its primary attractions to the German immigrants. The area below Houston Street was older and the tenements there tended to be smaller and lower in profile — three-story frame structures being typical — than the newer brick buildings above Houston Street. Around Tompkins Square Park and to the west, especially, there were four- and five-story buildings that had been built primarily in response to the wave of immigration from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. They were somewhat more hospitable to habitation than the older tenements of the lower wards, with architectural touches that even made some of them pleasing to the eye. Of course, the disadvantage of the taller tenements was that they could stack more people per square foot of ground area, making the neighborhood that much more crowded.

Whether newer or older, the tenement apartments were universally small and cramped. Depending on one’s income and the size of one’s family, one would typically choose between a two-, three-, or four-room apartment (the lap of luxury to the struggling immigrant) based on the design of the building, with the privy outside in the rear yard. And there often was not much yard to speak of, especially when landowners tried to maximize profit from their real estate by erecting a rear tenement behind the main one fronting the street or, particularly in the later

decades, extending the building almost the entire length of the lot. Needless to say, the population was densely packed, and living conditions quite spare at best.

Earning a Living

The ways in which the Germans of Kleindeutschland earned their living in their adopted country was to a great extent a reflection of the society they were leaving behind. Overall they tended to have some schooling, at least enough to make them literate. They also were coming from a culture with a long history of the master-journeyman relationship in most trades, stemming from the guild tradition, with its emphasis on achieving the highest possible skill level in one’s trade. This stood in some contrast to the majority of Irish-Catholic immigrants of the same period, who had been second-class citizens within their native country, with very limited opportunities for getting a significant education or becoming a skilled artisan. This disparity gave the German immigrants a leg up on their Irish competitors, even with the language barrier. And if a German immigrant was plying his trade primarily in Kleindeutschland or among his German brethren, then that language challenge was greatly mitigated.

That advantage, however, does not mean that life was easy for the Germans of Kleindeutschland — far from it. Even the upper ranks of skilled workers often toiled in difficult conditions such as damp dirty cellars or poorly ventilated workshops, and twelve-hour workdays were not at all unusual in the early-to-mid 1800s. Bakers in particular often worked well over twelve hours a day, and sometimes nearly around the clock, baking their wares in cellar ovens and then delivering their merchandise to patrons, often back-breaking work. Their compensation may have been enough to keep food on their own tables, but not enough to raise them into the middle class, unless they were able to develop their own substantial business. Some immigrants worked long hours in their small tenement apartments assisted by family members, if they were involved in a trade that paid by the piece. Tailoring and cigar making were examples of this so-called “putting out system,” and were two occupations that Germans dominated, though they were not as profitable as some other trades. In many cases, a respectable white-collar job in a bank or office was the goal of members of the first American-born generation.

There were certain trades in New York City in which German immigrants were particularly prominent. For example, in 1855 Germans represented over 60 percent of all cabinetmakers, tobacconists (usually cigar makers), and barbers. In the same year they accounted for more than 50 percent of all bakers, shoemakers, locksmiths, tailors, and, of course, brewers. On the other hand, only about 9 percent were simple laborers and 11 percent, porters. Overall, the German immigrant in New York City and his beloved Kleindeutschland generally had an opportunity at least to support himself and his family. Of course, this does not mean that some did not struggle to earn a living. One can find in the city directories of the time plenty of German names listed among the rag pickers and night scavengers.

In spite of the advantageous position of the Germans in the New York labor market, at least relative to many other immigrant groups, their situation was not without difficulties and conflict. In fact, German workers were heavily involved in pressuring employers for higher wages and better working conditions, and there were many German workers who viewed themselves as communists and socialists. As early as the 1840s, followers of their Landsmann Karl Marx, many with their own slants on his philosophy, organized various pro-worker, anti-capitalist groups, and expressed their views in German-language newspapers.

But serious action in support of workers did not take place until the inflation of the early 1850s. That decade saw many labor actions and strikes on the part of German workers’ associations and unions. Even the Turnverein, an association imported from Germany, with an emphasis on physical fitness through gymnastics blended with free thinking and a touch of socialism, tended to throw its support behind the workers, even when its members’ employers were middle-class Germans themselves.

Daily Life beyond Work

When the German immigrants came to New York, naturally they brought with them their language and culture, which is what encouraged them, as it does with most ethnic groups, to live in close proximity to one another, nurturing the growth of their ethnic neighborhood. A significant part of the fabric of society in Germany, even in small villages, had always been a variety of social groups and clubs that brought citizens together in their limited free time, and the immigrants brought these institutions with them to the New World. Kleindeutschland contained a myriad of organizations and fraternal societies oriented towards a wide variety of interests and goals.

In Kleindeutschland, as in Deutschland itself, music played a large part in the lives of many people, and singing societies like the Liederkranz and Arion, to name a couple, could be found virtually everywhere. Illustrating the importance of these groups, in the summer of 1865 a huge convention of German singing societies was organized in the city, with well over one hundred groups from the greater metropolitan area in attendance. This huge five-day event included many concerts and picnics at Jones’ Woods, a now long-forgotten recreational area on the uptown shore of the East River.

The Germans of Kleindeutschland were also known for having many talented musicians within their ranks, and small wandering bands, which were especially common in the German Palatinate, an area that supplied more than its fair share of immigrants to the U.S., could occasionally be found playing on local streets. German-Americans also dominated the many city-wide orchestras of the time.

The men of Kleindeutschland were very fond of joining fraternal organizations. Some were German-oriented offshoots of local Anglo groups, such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows, while others like the Sons of Hermann and the Harugari society were specifically geared to, or established by, the German immigrants, promoting the preservation of their culture and language. A very different type of institution, the shooting club, or Schützenverein, was a traditional German association that was transplanted even to New York’s urban environs. The Schützen-Gesellschaft hall from 1885, with its large plaque proclaiming “Unity produces strength” (Einigkeit macht stark), still stands on St. Mark’s Place in old Kleindeutschland.

On a much more practical note, the Germans of Kleindeutschland had at their service all the usual financial and business-related institutions that one would expect to be found in an urban community, except that they were geared specifically to the German culture and language. The German Dispensary brought needed medical services to the population, while the Free Library, Freie Bibliothek und Lesesaal, still standing on Second Avenue, became a mainstay of the neighborhood. There were also numerous banks and insurance companies, as well as newspapers that not only informed the citizenry of current events, but also reflected various political and social points of view. The most famous of these was the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung und Herold, whose long history continues even today, if in a much smaller and politically less significant way.

The Beer Culture

As we have seen, there was a great desire among many German immigrants to live life at least in some ways as they had in the old country, and that desire came to fruition in part in the taverns or inns, which could be found virtually on every block of the neighborhood. Some, especially in the district along the Bowery, became large beer halls; they commonly presented a variety of shows and music with dancing, and were quite appropriate for family gatherings and socializing. Other smaller establishments, sometimes located in the cellars of tenement buildings, could be more male-oriented and far less family appropriate.

The largest beer halls were primarily to be found along the Bowery, which became a major entertainment district as the nineteenth century progressed, catering not only to German tastes as supported by the inhabitants of Kleindeutschland, but also to English speakers as well.

Niblo’s Saloon, Lindenmueller’s Odeon, the Germania, the Deutsches Volksgarten, among many others, provided wholesome entertainment in various formats, the one common factor among all of them being the availability of lager beer. It was the Germans who brought lager (as opposed to porter or other brews) to this country, and their appreciation for this particular libation encouraged the rapid establishment of breweries in the city. Some of the most well-to-do German-Americans of the first and second generations in New York, as well as in other American cities, were the “Brewer Princes” who ran the larger breweries of the late 1800s. Although wine was also a popular drink in many areas of Germany, beer was ubiquitous. Besides, lager could be brewed locally and cheaply in the States, while wine making was a more complex process requiring more scarce ingredients (grapes), and imported wine was simply too expensive an option for the masses.

This cultural connection between recreation and beer was also a source of conflict between the German population and civil authorities in Kleindeutschland, especially since Sunday was the primary day of rest and recreation for the average working man, and therefore the appropriate time for him to spend time with friends and family in the beer halls. Unfortunately the Sunday blue laws did not allow for such merriment in public places, and the sale of alcoholic beverages was specifically prohibited.

In order to circumvent the law, some inventive German mind conceived of the “Sunday Sacred Concert” –the idea being that performances of sacred music should certainly be protected under the umbrella of freedom of religious expression, and if “sacramental” beer was consumed by participants looking to raise their spiritual consciousness to a higher level – well, perhaps no one in a position of authority would notice. And so it was, for the most part, though at times the police were known to shut a German establishment or two on a Sunday. One creative German beer hall operator, Gustavus Lindenmueller, owner of the Odeon and other establishments along the Bowery, attempted to ensure there would be no intrusions by the authorities by claiming to have established a new religion, the German Shaker Society. The police did not take kindly to this thinly veiled attempt to skirt their authority, and although they usually looked the other way when dealing with Sunday sacred concerts, Lindenmueller was eventually brought up on charges.

Religion

German religious traditions placed their own stamp upon the landscape of Kleindeutschland. By the early 1840s a few Protestant and Catholic German-language churches had been established near and slightly north of Houston Street. This helped to draw the German populations into a part of the city just south of Tompkins Square Park which had previously been mostly undeveloped.

And the wave of German immigration did not only bring Christians into the area; though still very much a minority, the Jewish population also swelled significantly in these years due to the arrival of large numbers of German Jews. This immigration laid the groundwork for the Lower East Side to become the center of Jewish culture in New York in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when even larger numbers of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe landed on our shore.

A few of the church buildings that were built in the formative years of Kleindeutschland still exist, including St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Sixth Street, now a synagogue; Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on Third Street, once known as the German Cathedral, and having had a much taller steeple; and the Anshe Chesed synagogue on Norfolk Street, now housing the Angel

Orensanz Foundation. These and most of the many other religious institutions of the area were founded specifically to serve the German immigrant community, and the Christian denominations used the German language in their services. The German Catholic churches, including Our Lady of Sorrow on Pitt Street and St. Nicholas on Second Street (the first German Catholic parish in the city, established in 1832, now a parking lot), were specifically recognized as “national”

churches, meaning that their sole purpose was to serve their German ethnic community, rather than to function as parish churches. All these religious institutions provided not only a spiritual home for the local populace, but they also sponsored numerous social groups, helping to preserve the area’s unique cultural heritage.

The German Quarter Moves

As the nineteenth century marched toward its conclusion, the initial population of German immigrants in Kleindeutschland was aging, and the first generation of American-born offspring was ready to expand their horizons beyond the area. At the same time, yet another large wave of immigration from Germany in the 1880s brought more individuals than either could, or wished to, settle in the old neighborhood. This was the time when Yorkville began to draw the population north, while at the same time an entirely new element in the immigration equation, those from Eastern Europe, began to seek homes in the tenements of the Lower East Side. These gradual changes ultimately caused the demise of Kleindeutschland in that its role as a vital ethnic German neighborhood was diminished.

It was in this atmosphere of change that on June 15, 1904, a much more cataclysmic event shook the community. The steamboat General Slocum, chartered by St. Mark’s Lutheran church, caught fire and sank in the East River while carrying over a thousand mostly German-American residents of Kleindeutschland, primarily women and children on their way to an annual picnic on Long Island. Most of the passengers, an estimated 1021 of the 1342 on board, perished in this single event, the most deaths by far of any disaster in the history of the city until the horror of September 11, 2001.

The Slocum is simply and touchingly memorialized in the neighborhood by a now somewhat mysterious and aged pink marble monument with a water fountain in Tompkins Square Park, dedicated in 1906 through the efforts of the Sympathy Society of German Ladies. It depicts the faces of two children seemingly gazing out to sea and the inscription “They were the earth’s purest children, young and fair.” The great tragedy of the Slocum, at a minimum, marked the symbolic end to the old neighborhood of Kleindeutschland.

Dr. Richard Haberstroh

is a native New Yorker, whose ancestors arrived in the city between 1835 and 1852 and resided in the Lower East Side’s Kleindeutschland. An accredited genealogist who has been involved in German genealogical research since 1984, Richard has published numerous genealogical articles, and is the author of The German Churches of Metropolitan New York: a Research Guide. In February 2012 he presented a lecture for LESPI "Germany in America: Kleindeutschland and New York City's Lower East Side," held at the Neighborhood Preservation Center at East 11th Street.